Comprehensive School Reform Can Debunk Myths About Change

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After more than a decade's worth of intense agonizing over what doesn't work in education, we could all be forgiven for losing heart. We have watched reform experiments soar in the ether of academic theory, only to crash in the more earthly atmosphere inhaled by real-life students in actual classrooms. We have seen schools and instruction dismantled piece by piece, rotated by degrees, then reassembled. We have downed multiple doses of education tonic, each marketed as the latest miracle cure for what ails our schools. Little has changed.

After spending so much time, and encountering so many inflated promises of success, parents have understandably run out of patience with school reform. Teachers, too, are tired of shouldering the blame and being used as guinea pigs to test the latest improvement fad. In the meantime, just about everyone has come to believe a myth that has excused a lack of results year after year: No matter which approach you try, improving schools and enhancing achievement is going to take an inordinately long time, and change will come only in infinitesimal increments.

The happy fact is: It's not true. We've actually learned something from sending up all those trial balloons, even from all the failures. With decades of experience and volumes of research as a foundation, what's certain is that making schools work better is hard, but genuine improvements can come about in short order--in as little as one year. The keys to major advances in children's learning can be found in the very communities that have spawned so much educational despair in recent years: the poor neighborhoods, which turn out to be full of resources as well as risks.

The dismal view we usually hold of poor communities and their educational possibilities is only half the picture. Alongside the poverty, unemployment, and crime are a wealth of cultural, economic, educational, and social resources that can be cultivated and mobilized to enhance the capacity for education. Herein lies an opportunity for children in struggling communities.

Among the children in troubled urban and rural areas, you will always see some who show remarkable resilience and who develop quite well in defiance of the adversity in their lives. Indeed, many children are strengthened by the challenges they face and are able to build productive and promising futures for themselves and their families.

Research has found that resilience is not some mysterious quality a few lucky disaster survivors happen to have embedded in their genetic material, but rather something that can be developed and nurtured in most children. Educational resilience can be fostered by putting in place some protective factors that work to enhance learning and also buffer children against their challenging circumstances. These factors work by increasing children's knowledge, skills, and constructive behaviors and by instilling in them more positive attitudes toward school and learning. By designing an educational reform framework around the factors we know that work to promote resilience, individual students, whole schools, and entire communities can thrive even in an environment riddled with risks.

Such theories have been applied and tested in demonstration sites around the country with increasing frequency in recent years. One shining example is Walker-Jones Elementary School in Washington, a school surrounded by housing projects that is 98 percent African-American and in which 94 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Five years ago, students there had stopped making any gains on standardized tests. Then they started losing ground. By the fall of 1996, Walker-Jones was bumping along the bottom, ranking 119th of 121 elementary schools in the district in reading achievement and 120th in math achievement. The school was identified by the district as needing support and was linked with a school reform program: one based on the principles of fostering resilience by building on diversity and linking powerful school interventions with family and community resources--the Community for Learning program, a comprehensive school reform model developed at Temple University's Center for Research and Human Development and Education. One year later, Walker-Jones had climbed to 46th in reading and 24th in math in the district.

The spirit of the school has changed, as well. Instead of graffiti, Technicolor learning displays bloom on every wall. Students are bursting to show off their classrooms to visitors, and the principal and teachers are visibly elated by the results of their efforts.

As an educator and researcher for over 20 years, I know that the remarkable transformation of Walker-Jones is no miracle. It's what happens when you pay attention to the lessons research has taught; understand each child's learning needs and tailor the instructional program to address them; and play to a school's--and a community's--strengths instead of focusing solely on what is broken. These are key ingredients to success in even the most challenged school districts. Although they appear in several "comprehensive" school reform programs, what distinguishes them is what they don't do:

  • They don't have to thrust a different curriculum upon a school or district.
  • They don't throw out everything old in favor of something novel.
  • They don't require the hiring of hordes of new staff members.

Instead of starting from scratch, programs like the one at Walker-Jones redeploy a school's resources--financial, human, and instructional--preserving what works and supplementing with improved practices to shore up weak spots. They build in elements that reinforce each teacher's competence, which helps sustain the changes and keep the momentum going.

One flaw in some promising school reforms is their dependence upon the skill and charisma of a uniquely inspiring individual. Leadership is indisputably essential for reform to succeed, but programs must be able to be replicated even without a colossus at their helm. If all teachers and key staff members receive ongoing training and feedback to build their competence, then they as individuals--and thus the whole institution--become more resilient. With this strength embedded in the school, improvements can be sustained through personnel changes, budget problems, student population shifts--all the inevitable stresses visited upon a school during its life. Toward this end, comprehensive programs like the one at Walker-Jones include a sustained commitment to ongoing professional development of the staff and a full-time facilitator who supports the staff as it implements the program.

The schools that do the best job of bolstering resilience and academic success share some critical features: They all hold high expectations for student success; employ effective classroom-management practices; offer frequent feedback to children with ample use of praise; hire teachers who use powerful strategies that tailor instruction to meet the diverse learning needs of each student; provide a professional climate and pleasant working conditions; and foster students' ability to take responsibility for their learning and behavior. They recognize that the protective factors that breed confidence and competence--the foundation of educational resiliency--are to be found not only in schools, but also within the family, among peers, and in the community, all of which can be strengthened by what goes on in school.

What works is adapting instruction to respond to students' diverse backgrounds and needs, an approach that determines how each child learns, where his or her strengths and weaknesses lie, and then tailoring an instructional program to meet those needs.

The same approach can be applied to the school itself, or to an entire district: first, an unflinching evaluation of existing resources, followed by a design that makes the most of what's already in place and bolsters the areas that need support. The outcome is a school that builds on diversity, rather than merely coping with it--a school that can make huge strides toward excellence in six months to a year.

When translated into a school design, the result is an approach that touches on every facet of a school's operation without reinventing the wheel. Some of the most successful strategies, employed by several widely implemented reform programs, are:

  • An adaptive approach to instruction, which offers an individual plan for each student--written as a "prescription" that guides the student through each day's activities and keeps teachers informed about his or her progress toward goals; and a classroom-management strategy that maximizes instruction time;
  • A comprehensive, coordinated team approach, in which regular and specialist teachers (special education and Title I reading, for example) and school administrators work together to determine and address students' learning needs;
  • Technical assistance to help schools restructure, including the use of technology for enhancing communication, instruction, and learning and the implementation of a data-based staff-development program for continuing support; and
  • A plan to link families and communities (including health and human-services programs) to help share responsibilities, support students, and make the most of existing resources.

The beauty of such programs is that they can work in any setting--urban, suburban, rural--and under any administration with any group of teachers. Getting started with a comprehensive resilience-building program takes commitment and hard work. Staff members need to dedicate themselves to intensive professional development on designing lessons and strategies targeted to individual learning needs. This is a significant undertaking, as no two students might be performing exactly the same tasks for the same lesson. Other skills that must be mastered: how to organize instruction and manage a day to ensure that each student can progress; how to adapt the curriculum currently in use to mesh with the adaptive-learning approach to achieve student success; how to assess students and offer continuous feedback--on specific tasks and on overall performance; and even how to arrange a room and move around in it. What are the outcomes? High standards of academic achievement, aligned with district and state performance standards.

What's happening at Walker-Jones Elementary, and at hundreds of other schools implementing resilience-promoting comprehensive school reform models, is exciting news. It's occurring during a unique window of opportunity for school improvement programs. Just as we're accumulating some persuasive evidence that these models can actually work--and work quickly--Congress has passed a measure, the Obey-Porter legislation, that provides schools a $150 million incentive to re-examine their resources and adopt a more inclusive, comprehensive approach to reform. This boost offers districts around the country the opportunity to put promising reform models into action on a wide scale.

Parents and teachers can take heart. What's needed to turn schools around is more a restoration job, not new, foundation-up construction. We can work with the fine features and structures that are already in place, making them stronger and more functional. The resilience that helps individuals defy adversity is also the force that will restore our schools. It might have taken a long time and a great deal of research to build such a successful reform prototype, but now that we have it, improvements in student achievement can occur in the same academic year the program is put in place--without spending vast sums of money and by using existing resources. Now that's an admirable return on an investment.

Margaret C. Wang is the founding director of the Center for Research in Human Development and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Pages 39, 52

Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as Comprehensive School Reform Can Debunk Myths About Change
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